Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Challenging the Conventional Mark Twain

My last post focused on the benefits of seeing writers from a different perspective.  Today let me offer a thought about what impact this has when dealing with a canonical writer -- Mark Twain.

When you begin to work with the history of criticism for one writer, you are often surprised at the way individual critics respond to a piece of writing or to a writer's life.  We are often taught that there is such a thing as the truth when writing about an author, that we are able somehow to create an objective interpretation of a story, novel, or a life.  The reality, however, is that each critic brings an intensely personal focus to the reading.  And critics have their own agendas for interpreting works.  If you read a series of biographies of Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain), for example, you will see that each biographer has his or her own perspective.  Even the point at which their story begins says a lot about what they think is important about Clemens' life:  for example, Justin Kaplan's Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain opens after Clemens has come east in 1867 and then follows the events of his developing career.  That suggests that there is a relatively clear break between Sam Clemens and the literary persona Mark Twain (Clemens first uses the pen name in 1863 but develops the full character of Twain over the next decade).  If you are drawn to this idea of the split personality, the work that you will do will be colored by the theory.

Something akin to that happens even earlier in Twain biography:  Albert Bigelow Paine and Clara Clemens (Sam Clemens' middle daughter -- the one that survived him [an interesting expression that could lead to yet another post eventually]) each set a specific ideal image of "Mark Twain" in the biographies they wrote. Twain is presented as a serious writer and sage who uses humor to poke at human nature.  It is the Twain of the white suit and wicked wit.  And that is the image that has come to dominate our culture.

But what happens when you look at the reality of Clemens' life and look behind the curtain that Paine and Clara (and a legion of later biographers and critics) used to obscure Clemens' reality.  And what happens when a critic or biographer challenges the long held image.  The Twain establishment is very particular about this image and will do what it can to discredit new perspectives.  Don't for a minute think that scholars are primarily interested in truth.  They are interested in making sure that their own theories and ideas are duplicated.  They want to make sure that there is a dominant view of their subject and that this view remains dominant.  There is self-interest as well as an intention to maintain a position in the hierarchy of criticism.

In future posts, I'll try to suggest how this works with Twain studies.  And I hope to offer some notion of what can be done to break the image of "Saint Mark" and find the reality of the man who was Samuel Clemens.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Literary Comfort Zones

Let me expand on the idea of breaking out of a comfort zone -- especially in our reading and interpretation of literary texts or the writers that produce them.  Turning to a new experience as a reader often is a mix of reward and anxiety.  While still a graduate student I was asked to read a sentimental novel written by an American woman during the mid 19th century. I chose Susan Warner's Wide, Wide, World, a novel published in 1850 (a contemporary and competitor to novels such as The Scarlet Letter and Moby Dick) and which sold thousands of copies in both the United States and Great Britain (Warner would be one of the "damned mob of scribbling women" that drew Hawthorne's ire).  I was assigned to read a novel that, because of its sentimentality, was thought (still in the 1980s) critically inferior to Hawthorne and Melville.  The point was to read an "inferior" work so that I could better appreciate the aesthetic complexity of male writers.  And it worked.  For a while.

Later I read other women writers, but this time within a wholly different context -- a study of the tradition of women's writing and within a more broadly constructed definition of the purpose of writing.  These women were writing within a part of the culture and as critics of that culture.  Their writing was, perhaps, not as aesthetically sophisticated as some of the male writers, but it was authentic because it spoke to the demands of the household and the legacy of sacrifice that was part of women's lives.  Male writers were held at arm's length and thought of as "artists."  Women were set into a lower class of contribution and were considered too much a part of the culture to write useful (which meant) existential criticism.  I was, in fact, forced now to look at what I had been told both about the value of novels and the role of writers.  And over the years I adjusted my approach to reading and then to teaching to take into account the writer's place within society and the changing definitions of worth.  This also -- by the way -- made me more conscious of the quality of writing and more conscious of the link between art and social commentary.

The reality is that this kind of discomfort can bring about substantial change in how we think about our own disciplines and our work within those disciplines -- and then how we think about what we do as teachers.  It takes some time for the lessons to sink in.  But holding on to conventional notions deprives us of the excitement of a new perspective and ideas.  We can broaden out our understanding of the world, but only if we remain open to the lessons that help us.

Next time -- how all of this affected my work on Mark Twain.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Mark Twain and Swordplay

Over four weeks during the months of July and August, my wife and I spent time taking a fencing class.  It wasn't quite what we expected.  It turned out to be -- according to our instructor -- a survey of weaponry and fighting strategies from roughly the 12th century to the 17th.  We started with broad swords -- four-foot long, two handed things (actually, we started with five foot-long wooden dowels that we used to practice both attack and defensive moves).  This week we ended with 17th century rapiers.  Afterwards we had ice cream.  It was our date night.

Oddly (perhaps), Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain) devotes several chapters in his travel book A Tramp Abroad to the dueling culture of France and Germany (chapters 5-8).  He pays particular attention to the Germans, and he goes on at length both about the mindset of the culture and the results -- both physical and social -- of duels.  Clemens, of course, got into trouble during his time in Virginia City Nevada and ended up running out of town soon after his own experience with a duel (not with swords but with revolvers).  In Germany a decade or so later, he had the chance to watch young German men do battle with swords (foils actually).  Clemens was at times impressed, though I think it's safe to say he was, in the end, pretty much appalled by the spectacle.  He thought that while the young men demonstrated a form of fearlessness, their families would pay the price when injuries or (at times) deaths were the result (I think of Clemens' late version of collateral damage in "The War Prayer").

But the point I want to make is that stepping into this class was helpful to me as a teacher.  Really.  Some years ago when I was more active in high performance driving at Watkins Glen (I wrote an essay that linked that learning experience with my approach to Mark Twain scholarship -- it was published by the Mark Twain Annual), I found it valuable to step away from my comfort zone and try to learn an entirely new skill.  That same thing happened (perhaps on a smaller scale) when I went to fencing class.  I was trying to learn an entirely new skill.  At times I was really bad at it.  And I felt conspicuous and uneasy.  I have been teaching for at least 25 years in one form or another (from graduate assistantships through to my present position as a full professor), and moving out of that comfort zone is invaluable.  Especially when it's a difficult skill.  And, for me, especially when it is a blend of physical and intellectual.  Performance driving was like that.  And so, to my surprise, was sword fighting.

From time to time now, my wife and I will practice with our dowels in our back yard.  I am waiting for the neighbors to panic and report a strange spectacle of domestic conflict.

Monday, August 23, 2010

August 23, 2010

I am not sure what possessed me to start writing a blog.  It seemed a good idea -- a way to get some thoughts down and to share those with a wider (perhaps) audience.  It might spark some response.  It might not.  But we will see.

Most of my days are spent wrestling with ideas, and most of those ideas come out of the reading that I do in various texts from 19th century American literature.  I know that doesn't sound exciting.  I do know that many of our contemporary issues -- from class definitions to racialist thinking -- have their roots in the world of the 19th century.  From the psychological personae of Poe's fiction to the optimism of Emerson's individualism, from the moral code of Thoreau's Walden or "Resistance to Civil Government" to the complicated nuance of Mark Twain in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson, from the realism of William Dean Howells' fiction to the domestic tensions expressed by Sarah Orne Jewett or Mary Wilkins Freeman or Kate Chopin, we can glean the starting point for a host of aesthetic, moral, and social arguments, all of which we can watch as they play out in our times.  Consider the Puritan voices of William Bradford and Mary Rowlandson, the conservative voices of Jonathan Edwards, and the radical voices of Margaret Fuller, Frederick Douglass, Charles Chesnutt, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.  Consider the ambivalence toward freedom and equality as expressed by Thomas Jefferson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, or even Abraham Lincoln.  All of these make up parts of my days.  It's quite a chorus. 

In the coming weeks, all of this will take on added focus as I start teaching again.  This year I will be facing the spread of students from first year to senior.  And the ideas that come through will not always be welcome.  So it goes. 

Maybe writing about this will help it come into sharper focus.  My hope is to bring new life to my thinking and to my teaching.  Writing about it will become (I hope) part of the whole process.